Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 26
FOR weeks there had been a steadily rising Nile at Wadi Okar, where the British cotton planting experiment was located. For weeks the British spirits had been just as steadily going down, and their wrath mounting to flood tide. After months of effort they had nothing to show for their toil and energy, except a makeshift cotton patch, where the ground had been scratched a bit, and the seed stuck in.
During the first two weeks that Colonel Spottiswoode spent on Wadi Okar plantation, a swarm of Shilluks, Dinkas and Nyam-Nyams fought with each other for a chance to work. The Colonel was amazed; he wiped his dangling eyeglasses and stared at them some more. But as each negro acquired the article he particularly craved—a string of beads or a fathom of cloth—nothing could tempt him to work any more, because he didn't want anything else.
"That's just like they do at home," the Colonel explained to Bimbashi McDonald. "When they come up from Vicksburg in cotton-picking time, each negro sets his mark at five dollars, or ten or twenty."
"Sets his mark?" queried McDonald the inquisitive; "what's that?"
"The negro wants something, and works until he gets money enough to buy it—then he quits. For instance, a picker may set his mark at ten dollars. If I'm paying fifty cents a hundred for picking, he'll pick two thousand pounds and get his ten dollars. But if I should pay ten dollars a hundred, he would only pick one hundred."
"Remarkable! Remarkable!" McDonald squirmed under a situation that he could not understand—nor combat.
"No, it is not remarkable"; the Colonel leaned back in his deep chair, while McDonald leaned forward and listened. "For it's just the same the world over. There isn't a smithereen of difference between this naked negro of the Nile and you—or me. None of us labor beyond our needs. The distinction lies in the extent of those needs. Your necessities are not confined to food and a warm place to sleep. You have ambitions, which he has not; you thirst for reputation, which he does not; you have a thousand necessities of which the black man has never dreamed. Two shillings a day would feed you, and cover your head at night. Then, why are you out here in the Sudan? You work to provide for your family's comfort after you are gone. You want to act a part in your country's history; you want to be a man who does things. Many of us need to do things for the mere joy of accomplishment. We Americans are proud to be an active enterprising people, feverishly restless, unpleasantly so at times. But suppose we could lie down flat on our backs, under the shade of a palm, with the wind blowing between our toes, while everything that we wanted would drop into our open mouths—without exertion—do you suppose we'd have any frenzied financiers? Any malefactors of great wealth? Any bank presidents in stripes, and a lot more that ought to be? Not much. No man labors beyond his needs."
All of this gave Bimbashi McDonald something to think about—and he always did a lot of thinking before he said anything. The Colonel watched him snatch up his rifle and hurry out upon the river in a launch.
At the very edge of the Nile Old Reliable had preempted a shady seat from which he could attend to his job of pondering the sudd grass as it went drifting down Khartum way. This job suited Zack; he had toiled at it for a solid month, ever since his niggers had deserted the cotton patch. He, too, eyed McDonald until the puffy little launch came back, and McDonald sprang out to go rushing towards the quarters.
"Huh!" Zack remarked; "Mister Bim didn't aim to go huntin'; he's jes' bound to keep busy doing' sump'n'."
Which was the truth concerning Bimbashi McDonald. Some thirty odd years ago a Highland family consultation had christened this wee braw laddie "Charles Malcolm Dermid Arthur," his sire being John McDonald, Laird of Lenoir. British officers knew him as "The Captain McDonald," a name once shouted by London crowds who had gone wild with rejoicing over the relief of Mafeking. On the Anglo-Egyptian rolls he figured as "El Bimbashi McDonald"—which the native soldiers reduced to "El Bimb." So Old Reliable persistently called him "Mister Bim," and McDonald stood for it.
As Mister Bim strode rapidly towards the quarters, Colonel Spottiswoode appeared, and called from the porch, "What luck, McDonald?"
"Shot two hippos. Both sunk. But they'll rise and float in a couple of days." Thereupon Mr. Bim opened the screen door and disappeared within to dress for dinner.
All of which activities old Zack viewed with more or less disgust, and reverted promptly to a subject upon which he had never ceased his grumbling. "Dar he go! Dar he go! Warn't dat jes like him, to put de whole 'sponsibility on me, and den come meddlin' wid my niggers hisse'f. Ef he'd jes kep his mouf shet I'd had dem niggers plowin' in de cotton patch till yit."
Old Reliable continued to mumble and grumble, and glancing over his shoulder to the squatty brick quarters which an early explorer had erected, now repaired for the white men who were directing cotton-planting experiments. Colonel Spottiswoode had strolled leisurely into the house when Mr. Bim bolted out again and slammed the wire screen. Zack knew that the Bimbashi would be attired in his dinner jacket. Zack also knew that the impatient young Scotchman would stride up and down the porch, or take a restless turn to the river and back. For the last idle month McDonald had taken many a restless turn, done much striding, and much swearing at their worthless labor.
Zack eyed Mr. Bim striding back and forth, like some powerful locomotive without a track. "Huh! Mister Bim ain't feelin' good; he sho is pestered in his mind."
Bimbashi McDonald was more than pestered; he was almost ready to own himself beaten in the fight to raise cotton on Wadi Okar. White mechanics had built their seed-houses with military promptitude; commissary and administration quarters went up as swiftly as the tents of a well-disciplined army. They set their gins to running like clock-work, but there would be no cotton to feed these gins unless some miracle set the negroes to running. The negroes baffled McDonald; he couldn't understand them. Half-plowed fields lay utterly deserted, while droves of naked blacks lounged in the shade, or squatted before his commissary. Cajolery could not lure them into the fields, and wages possessed no charms. McDonald wrathfully considered a resort to certain methods, which the settled policy of his Government forbade.
In the beginning McDonald had been almost hilarious—for a Scotchman. At the free distribution of seed he had a bargain-counter rush, with prices reduced to nothing. Every negro toted away his half-bushel of cotton seed, with explicit instructions how to plant. Not a seed was planted wrong—or right. On the first plowing day Shilluks, Dinkas and Nyam-Nyams had swarmed about, watching Zack Foster open up his long, straight rows; Shilluks wrangled with Dinkas for turns at holding the plow handles. McDonald's face beamed. He became optimistic and romantic as he slapped Colonel Spottiswoode on the back, and exclaimed, "That furrow, sir, marks a new era in the history of empire. The plow point of civilization is overturning the sloth of ages. Mark the light upon those happy negro faces. It is the hope of better things, an awakening."
The Colonel did not interrupt, while McDonald finished a long peroration in the same carefully chosen words with which he had just finished a report to his board of directors at home.
Spottiswoode had been quietly observing the negroes upon whom they must depend for labor, and he more than half agreed with Zack, who said, "Cunnel, d'aint nary dime's wuth o' diff'unce twixt dese niggers an' dem what us got on Sherwood—'cept dese niggers ain't got to hustle fer pervisions an' Christmas money."
Mr. Bim predicted an awakening, and got it—for himself and Lyttleton. Zack never waked, for he had never been to sleep. He wasn't disappointed; he could sit all day digging his heels into the soft earth, sending little clods tumbling into the Nile, and shouting for Said when he wanted a drink of water.
After his negroes had unanimously and simultaneously abandoned their unnecessary labors, Mr. Bim raged on the porch; Zack grinned; "Now, ef dat was de Cunnel trompin' up an' down dat gallery, I wouldn't go nigh him fer nuthin'. But, Mister Bim, I reckin' he'd be glad fer most anybody to throw him a rope." Which correctly diagnosed McDonald's spiritual condition.
When Zack observed Mr. Bim come out, wearing his dinner jacket, and drop limply into a chair, he rose and rambled thitherward: "Good evenin', Mister Bim."
"Good afternoon, Zack."
"Mister Bim," he announced, "I'm fixin' to open up a Hot Cat Eatin' House. Dat sho' will start niggers to work."
McDonald considered this seriously as if Zack had advanced the theory that red pepper would start negroes to sneezing. Although anxious, McDonald was not hasty, so he inquired, "What is a Hot Cat Eating House?"
Zack smiled tolerantly as he settled himself on the top step. "You see, Mister Bim, it's jes' dis way: Dese niggers won't work 'cause dey don't need nothin'. Ef dey wanted sumpin' reel bad, dey'd hustle fer it. I kin set 'em to hoppin' in dat fiel' thicker'n fleas on a fat pup. I don't promise nothin' what I can't do. You ax de Cunnel."
McDonald sprang up. "Yes, yes—you've hit it—they have no needs. That's what Colonel Spottiswoode says—exactly in line with the Von Gaben theory. I'll get Von Gaben's book."
Twice the screen door slammed, and McDonald reappeared with his fingers between the leaves of a book. "I had that place marked. Listen——"
While old Zack hearkened to and assimilated the wisdom of that German scientist, he looked mighty solemn. Then McDonald closed the book and asked, "By what process of reasoning did you reach the same conclusion? That's what you've been pondering about?"
"Naw suh, Mister Bim, I ain't been ponderin' none. I been studyin' an' thinkin' so hard I ain't had no time fer to ponder."
Impulsively McDonald sprang from his chair, rushed to the Colonel's door, and called, "Oh, Colonel! Be so kind as to come here. Zack has a jolly good idea, exactly in line with what I was reading you last night from Von Gaben."
"Let's have it, Zack." The Colonel came out smiling and sat down. McDonald remained standing. Zack laced his fingers, and clasped them around his knees. "Cunnel, I wants to start a catfish stan'. Jes' soon as dese niggers gits a taste o' hot cat, dey sho will work fer money to buy mo'." Colonel Spottiswoode glanced at McDonald and would have laughed, but the Scotchman looked so desperately in earnest that he couldn't pass it off as a joke.
"What makes you think so, Zack?"
"I don't think it, Cunnel—I knows dat. You 'member dat greasy-faced yaller nigger named Jube? Shoes laced up wid white strings? Jube sho' was one triflin' nigger. Never done nothin' 'cept set down an' wait till time come to quit work. Gardenin' time er cotton pickin' time, ev'y day was Sunday wid Jube. Jube say twarn't no sense fer him to be strainin' his back, like dem rouster niggers—he didn't need nothin'. Dat 'ooman what cooked at Jedge Freeman's house, she fed him, but Lordee, Cunnel, Jube was so lazy his vittles didn't taste good.
"One day in de winter time Jube come loafin' past de Hot Cat Eatin' House, whar we-all wuz settin' roun' de stove talkin' lodge bizness. Aunt Fanny was floppin' catfish in de skillet, an' de smoke riz up. Dat's how come Jube poked his nose in de do' an' say, 'What dat I smell so good?' Bud Lowe flung a chunk o' coal at him an' hollered, 'Git out o' here, Jube—you knows I don't 'low you to hang roun' my eatin' house.' Dat sho' was de troof, Cunnel. I'd been settin' in dat same cheer nigh on to five years, an' I knowed dat Bud never had no use fer loafin' niggers. Shucks, Cunnel, a chunk o' coal couldn't hurt Jube's feelin's. Bud had de onlies' stove whar Jube could git warm, so Jube kep' on a comin' in. Atter while Aunt Fanny got riled an' say, 'Jube, whyn't you buy some catfish?' Jube he 'ply back, 'I ain't got no change to-day.' Dar Jube sot, an' dar Jube sot, wid his mouf hankerin' fer catfish. I 'spicioned dat he was gwine to keep a settin' till he got some catfish—ef de seat of Jube's breeches helt out——"
"His what?" queried McDonald.
"Ef he sot dar long ernuff."
"Ah! I see—a tenacious person?"
"No suh, jes hongry. One day a strange nigger come in, an' claim he jes lousy wid money—wouldn't some gen'l'man step up an' have a snack? Jube tumbled off'n his cheer, an' wropped his legs underneath de table, an' call out, 'Aunt Fanny, gimme a piece o' catfish.' Well, suh, Cunnel, dat was jes de startin' of it.
"Dat same evenin' when I gits back to de Hot Cat dar was Jube settin' beside de stove, smellin' an' a sniffin', but he can't get no fish 'cause Bud Lowe runs a spot cash eatin' house. 'Mus' be purty nigh train time,' say ole man Eli Mundy, 'an' us kin see de hacks gwine down hill to de deepo. Jes den de train blowed. Jube hunched himself, den up an' runs out de front do' widout sayin' nothin' to nobody. I looked out de back do' 'cause I 'lowed maybe de constable mought be comin'. Ole Man Eli ketch his breath—'Huh! You see dat? Sumpin' sho' did itch Jube right sudden.'
"D'reckly Jube come puffin' up dat steepes' hill, totin' a white man's grip sack to de hotel. Den he stomps into de eatin' house, and say, 'Aunt Fanny, gimme two slices o' catfish. Here's yo' dime.' Atter dat Jube commence totin' grip sacks reg'lar. Some days he didn't ketch no grips, an' dat put him in de notion of a steddy job. Cunnel, you's boun' to 'member Jube—he's porter for de fines' near-beer saloon in Vicksburg, right dis day. Jube works all de time."
"Yes, I know Jube," the Colonel answered, and his face showed that he thought there might be a grain of sense in Zack's suggestion. Anyway it was a straw, and McDonald caught at it, drawing his chair closer and asking, "Now, Zack, please explain your proposition. What can be done?"
"Easy 'nuff, Mister Bim. I ain't promisin' nothin' what I can't do. Lemme fry up a lot o' catfish, an' start dese niggers to eatin' it. D'ain't no way fer 'em to git money 'cept by workin in de fiel'. An' d'ain't no way to git catfish widout money. Here's yo' hongry nigger, dar's yo' cat fish an' yonder's de plow-handles—ain't dat reasonable?"
"Suppose they don't like cooked fish?" objected the Bimbashi.
"Lordee, Mister Bim, ev'y nigger's 'bleeged to love catfish, jes' soon's he gits a taste. At de fust off-startin' I'll give ev'y one of 'em a little piece." Old Reliable chuckled to himself, "One time I went on a 'scussion to Memphis. De butcher-boy what peddles apples an' oranges, he come 'long wid peanuts an' never sold nary sack. Dat boy knowed niggers from de groun' up. Atter while he walks throo, whistlin', wid a pocket full o' peanuts, an' draps two on ev'y seat. Den he foller wid de basket, an' ev'y nigger what tasted one peanut, he bought a sack full."
"By the same token, McDonald," exclaimed the Colonel; "there might be something in this."
"Wouldn't hurt to try. We've got plenty of nets and seines."
"Yas suh, Mister Bim, but I likes a trot-line; it's bes' for catfish."
"But you can wade in with a long seine," suggested the Scotchman; "and——"
"Not me" Zack shook his head. "Side's gwine to ketch dem fish." Zack had looked down the throat of one hippopotamus—which was enough for Zack.
The Colonel's eyes twinkled: "But, Zack, you'd be certain to get fish if you went after them yourself."
"Naw suh, Cunnel, I bin studyin' an' studyin' 'bout dis here catfish stan'. Me an' Side kin ten' to dat bizness a heap mo' better, ef Side ketches de fish?"
"All right," the Colonel suggested, "let Said cast the net, while Zack takes a canoe and runs the trot-line. No fisherman on the Mississippi can hold a candle to Zack, when it comes to running trot-lines."
"Yas suh, Cunnel, dat sho is de troof. But I'm de main boss o' dat catfish stan', an' I got to be dar ev'y minute. Twon't take Side no time to learn."
McDonald took out his pencil. "Very well. Let's get on. What buildings do you require?"
"Shucks, Mister Bim, a catfish stan' ain't no buildin'—it's jes a shack."
"Where do you want it built?"
"Ef twuz in Vicksburg, I'd set it down side de river whar all de roustabouts loafs."
"At the landing place?"
"Yas suh—wid a bench in de shade."
"How about putting it under that clump of dom palms?"
"Dat's de ve'y place."
"Your building will be finished by noon to-morrow." McDonald clapped his hands, shouted "Wahid!" and sent Fudl running with orders for the chief carpenter to report immediately.
The celerity of McDonald's action took Zack's breath. "Dat's right, Mister Bim. De Lord knows how dese niggers gits 'long, doin' nothin' all day."
Colonel Spottiswoode leaned back in his chair and laughed, "Zack, you're going to spoil your loafing place, where you sit all day and do nothing."
"Yas, suh, Cunnel, dat's all right fer me to do nothin', 'cause I got a job—but dese niggers ain't."